avengers infinity war spoiler review

Framing Thanos

Avengers: Infinity War is a structural oddity. In the process of balancing dozens of characters, some, like Steve Rogers/Captain America, get the short end of the stick. Rogers doesn’t show up until 40 minutes in, and there’s little clarity as to what he, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) have even been doing these last few years. We’re yet to see any real emotional fallout from Captain America: Civil War, and there’s a good half hour of the film during which Rogers & co. don’t re-appear at all.

And yet, Rogers’ presence here is thematically vital — especially to Thanos, despite the two barely colliding. While discussing whether or not The Vision should sacrifice himself, Rogers vocalizes the team’s (and thus, the film’s) mission statement, even in the face of extinction: “We don’t trade lives.”

This uncompromising through-line has, thus far, been the Avengers’ core. But it’s a belief they’re finally forced to go back on thanks to Thanos, that too in ways that don’t afford them an equivalent payoff. They do finally trade lives, but they lose regardless. In fact, Thanos’ readiness to trade lives, in contrast to the Avengers’, is what makes him their perfect foil. Though Captain America sticking to his guns is a source of little conflict; the Avengers eventually trading lives is something he never challenges, nor something that challenges him, since these decisions are made when he isn’t around. One wonders what might have been, had Rogers and Thanos been allowed to exchange words and perspectives, rather than punches.

Thanos’ plan involves wiping out half of all life (all sentient life, one assumes), thus enacting a Neo-Malthusian population control, taken to the extreme. To do this, Thanos must first sacrifice that which he loves most — his daughter Gamora — in order to attain the Soul Stone. “A soul for a soul,” he’s told by the Stone’s keepr (a returning Red Skull), though the soul Thanos sacrifices here is implicitly his own.

(This is also the only time in the series other than Doctor Strange where an Infinity Stones feels thematically tied to character.)

Whether or not Thanos’ scheme will technically work (there are numerous logistical arguments against it; I would argue it doesn’t matter), his willingness to detach himself from empathy is what separates him from the Avengers. Where Ultron had no empathy to begin with, Thanos actively battles his more humane impulses, in order to act in a manner he calls heroic.

He forces the Avengers to do the same.

Like Killmonger before him, the abstract extremes of Thanos are a perfect fit for the story. Though there’s an unevenness to his philosophy that doesn’t quite work in the context of his literal actions. He believes in achieving universal balance at a 50/50 rate, but who he kills, and when, and why, don’t seem to align. For instance, he murders 300 dwarves on Nidavellir and leaves only Eitri (Peter Dinklage), which raises questions about his dedication to his own objective. The film never dramatizes or even mentions this contradiction.

Though, one might argue that 300 is a mere statistical glitch in the grand scheme of his plan; a “necessary” cruelty. As benevolent as Thanos thinks he is, he cuts off Eitri’s hands to ensure no other Infinity Gauntlets are made, evoking the widely-told myth about Mughal ruler Shah Jahan who, after construction of the Taj Mahal in the 1600s, was said to have amputated the hands of 20,000 labourers who built it. (The reality was likely a simple understanding that they wouldn’t work for other emperors, but the barbarous folktale makes for a more sensational, more egomaniacal story).

In fleshing out Thanos’ methods, the film has ample opportunity to use the limitless visual potential of the Infinity Stones, but it often flubs this as well. The abilities and limitations of each Stone are ill-defined, as is which one is being used in a given moment (unless you like to pause the film and make colour-coded charts). This leads to confused action beats where the drama is unclear.

When Thanos is first attacked by the Guardians, he dices Drax (Dave Bautista) and mangles Mantis (Pom Klementieff), reducing them to dozens of pieces. These moments seem horrifying; for the first time in the series, we witness heroes be physically butchered! Though rather than clarifying the effects of the Reality Stone or how Thanos choses to wield it, the film leaves us to discover that Drax and Mantis are safe and sound, but not until after major story beats involving Quill and Gamora

In a given scene, there’s little delineating who Thanos would or would not kill using these lethal, all-powerful Stones. Certain characters understandably must be kept alive for the climax, but the dramatic stakes in the interim lack a sense of precision for a villain so otherwise precise.  

That said, from the moment Thanos is introduced, he comes off as formidable. He goes toe-to-toe with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in an exchange of punches — a grounded, un-fantastical introduction that helps establish Thanos’ physical might — and he defeats the Hulk with ease. This sparks Bruce Banner’s own character regression wherein, after finally accepting the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok, he can no longer summon his big green friend.

Though once Banner arrives on Earth, his scenes whizz by in a manner that prevents any serious reflection. The downside to Thanos existing to undo character arcs is that sometimes, the drama feels clunkily and artificially delayed. Banner’s arc, for instance, is left incomplete. There’s little payoff to him being unable to summon the Hulk beyond comedy, and he barely exchanges two words with Natasha Romanoff, the woman he was in love with when he departed Earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

When the Hulk arrived in New York in The Avengers, it was so his story could culminate through action. When he and the others arrive in Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War, most of their stories are in stasis, and they remain this way throughout the final battle.

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The Forgotten World of Wakanda

In some cases, it’s forward momentum, not backward, seeing the characters through. Though, given Thanos’ apparent function in the shared-universe context — he challenges character arcs by un-writing them — it’s hard to say whether the occasional straightforward approach works best for the overall narrative.

T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) decision to aid the Avengers is a direct result of Black Panther, and the logical outcome of an arc that made him open Wakanda to the world. Though unlike several other Avengers, there’s nothing in the film — neither Stone-related, Thanos-related, nor otherwise — that challenges T’Challa’s moral outlook. In a story where so many Avengers are pushed to their limit (even Falcon and Black Widow return to assist their persecutors), T’Challa feels like an afterthought.

Wakanda itself feels narratively incidental to Avengers: Infinity War. T’Challa and his kingdom don’t show up until an hour in, and the film, as if wobbling under its own weight, continues introducing previously important characters like Shuri (Letitia Wright) and M’baku (Winston Duke) well past the 90-minute mark.

T’Challa, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the other Wakandans disappear for large chunks of the movie, and they don’t return until it’s time for the fighting to ensue. The edit favouring the other characters isn’t inherently an issue, but the Wakandan part of the story is relegated to an enormous stand-off, which exists primarily to wheel-spin. It delays dramatic conflicts in a way that, once more, centers Marvel’s signature pre-visualized, CGI-heavy action divorced from story and character.

Of all the action in the film — and there is plenty — the Wakanda battle is the least visually or narratively engaging.

***

In Part 2, we look at the film’s massive action scenes, the Black Order, the New York Avengers (Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man), all those deaths, and what’s truly at stake in Avengers: Endgame.

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